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Pierre Brassau: The chimpanzee painter who fooled the avant-garde world

Goran Blazeski

The art world was obsessed with abstract art when World War II ended. The movement that featured artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline was becoming more and more popular.

It is hard for lay people to make a difference between a good abstract painting from a bad one and most lay people find the work strange or even childish. Although for a many people these paintings were strange and nonsensical, the critics were eating them up.

Ake Axelsson, a journalist that worked for the Swedish tabloid Goteborgs-Tidningen, was tired of seeing people fawn over daubs of paint haphazardly thrown at a piece of canvas.

Wassily Kandinsky, Kandinsky's first abstract watercolor, 1910.

Wassily Kandinsky, Kandinsky’s first abstract watercolor, 1910.

He decided to test these critics by seeing if they could tell the difference between the work of a real abstract artist and a chimpanzee.

He went to the Boras Djurpark Zoo in order to find the “artist.” It was a four-year-old chimpanzee named Peter. He convinced the keeper into it and provided Peter with some oil paints and let him do whatever he wanted. It was 1964 when the Gallerie Christinae in Goteborg, Sweden, held an exhibition of young avant-garde painters.

At the show were works by artists from England, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Sweden and among them were also four paintings by a previously unknown avant-garde French artist named Pierre Brassau.

Peter (aka "Pierre Brassau") in 1964

Peter (aka “Pierre Brassau”) in 1964

Apparently, Peter didn’t sound so artistic to the Swedish journalist, so he gave him the much fancier sounding name Pierre Brassau. Pierre Brassau was the star of the exhibition and the critics adored his paintings.

Rolf Anderberg of the morning Posten wrote that most of the works at the show were “ponderous,” but he described the work of the unknown avant-garde French artist Pierre Brassau like this:

“Pierre Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”

Everyone was fascinated with Pierre Brassau’s paintings and only one critic had a negative word to say about Peter declaring, “Only an ape could have done this.”

Later Axelsson exposed the truth about the paintings and revealed that Pierre Brassau was actually Peter the chimpanzee from the Boras Djurpark Zoo.

Rolf Anderberg the critic for the Posten insisted that Pierre’s paintings were “still the best paintings in the exhibition” and now he was even more enthralled with the works.

We have another story like this:Jack, the chacma baboon who was employed as a signalman by a railroad and was paid in money and beer

A collector named Bertil Eklot even bought one of the “masterpieces” for $90 (about $650 today).

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News